100 Highest Peaks in Oregon
by Jeff Howbert
Want to make a couple of quick bucks? Hereís a bar bet almost any Washington climber should jump at. The conversation would go something like this...
After swapping lies for awhile, you casually observe, "Boy, thereís a lot of high mountains down in Oregon, too. In fact, I heard thereís almost a hundred that are over 8000 feet high."
Your climbing buddy/victim will probably deny this without even thinking about it. "Nah, no way!"
Now itís time to set the hook. "Well, maybe thereís only 80 that are over 8000 feet. But I think thereís supposed to be more than 30 over 9000 feet. Thatís twice as many as in Washington."
This will seem so outrageous it will force his/her brain to engage. Theyíll drop into silence as you watch the wheels turn. "Letís see...thereís Hood, and the rest of the volcanoes, and maybe a couple of things over in the Wallowas, maybe...."
But it wonít compute. So theyíll deny it again, more vehemently this time. "Thatís impossible! No way!"
What you do at this juncture is up to you - set up the bet and reel them in, or let them go, and laugh about it together. (Be careful if this someone you might share a rope with in the future.) But the fact is, you would win the bet, no contest. And this article would provide the necessary documentation, complete and irrefutable.
At first I didnít believe it myself. I grew up in central Oregon, and knew the mountains in that part of the state well. In college, I hiked a bit in the Wallowas one summer, and worked one winter on a ranch near Steens Mountain, in the southeast.
I guess I assumed this had pretty well educated me on the high places across the state of Oregon. I was very mistaken.
My interest in compiling a list of the 100 highest peaks in Oregon grew out of a general fascination with maps, topography, and my own recent efforts in researching the highest mountains in the west central Washington Cascades (see "the Home Court 100", July Pack & Paddle).
Oregon was a natural for several reasons. Besides my roots there, and an abiding love of the countryside, I still have a lot of family in the state; I thought having a good list of mountains to climb would give me something to do when we visit the in-laws. (Wait - or is it that I should be sure to visit the in-laws when I go climbing? No, that still sounds like Iím headed for trouble...)
I used the same rules for defining a mountain as with the Home Court list, that is, the peak must have a minimum of 500 feet of "clean" prominence (see that article for details). Furthermore, I decided to conduct a purely topographic survey. No consideration was given to whether a peak was named or not. As it turned out, quite a number of unnamed but distinct summits were found to qualify - 25 out of the top 100, in fact.
Searching an entire state for its highest peaks proved to be vastly more work than the Home Court project. The USGS uses around 1800 7.5 minute quads to provide topographic coverage of the whole of Oregon. I first gained an overview of the state with larger scale maps, then looked in detail at 115 of these 1:24,000 scale quads to pinpoint the 100 highest peaks and establish their prominence.
The accompanying table lists those peaks in order, from highest to lowest, with their summit elevation and the quad theyíre located on. Most peaks with no name on the map are identified according to the names of two nearby lakes or streams, enclosed in square brackets. Three of the unnamed peaks are identified either as a subsummit of a nearby named peak (#74 and #92), or take the name of a triangulation station near the summit (#86).
As a further aid to locating these mountains, and to show how they are distributed across the state, all 100 have been plotted on the accompanying map. They fall naturally into five zones. (Each peakís zone is also listed in the table; see tableís footnotes for abbreviations used.)
Although some of the zones are quite dispersed geographically, there is a good degree of physiographic and geologic uniformity within each zone. When comparing across zones, however, it becomes apparent that very disparate forces were responsible for raising the mountains to the heights found today.
Briefly, the five zones look like this:
CASCADE MTNS. Zone. "Cones and Craters". The 25 peaks in this zone are almost exclusively of volcanic origin. Some, such as South Sister and Mt. McLoughlin, are beautiful symmetric stratovolcanoes of recent vintage, and are expected to resume eruption again in the near future.
Such cones have been building along the Cascades for a million years or more. Some of the older ones are now extinct and have been heavily scoured by glaciers, leaving behind the resistant central plug. Three Fingered Jack and Mt. Thielsen are good examples of these older remnants.
Several peaks are found along the rims of a special type of volcanic landform, the caldera. Formed by the cataclysmic collapse of a large volcano, the resulting crater often contains a lake. Crater Lake is the most famous caldera in the United States, and is ringed by five peaks on the list. Another peak, Paulina Peak, stands above the other large caldera in the state, Newberry Crater.
SOUTHEAST Zone. "Rim Country". This portion of Oregon comprises the northwest corner of the physiographic province known as Basin and Range. The dominant geologic forces at work here cause the uplift and sinking of large blocks of land between long, north-south trending, parallel faults.
A characteristic feature of the resulting terrain is long, high escarpments above broad, flat basins. Prime examples of this among the 16 peaks in this zone are Warner Peak and Steens Mountain (the latter modified secondarily by Ice Age glaciers).
The rules for defining peaks produced one anomaly in this zone. The Trout Creek Mountains rise well above 8000 feet in Oregon, but the prominence-defining summit is across the border in Nevada, so it was not included in this list.
WALLOWA MTNS., ELKHORN CREST, and STRAWBERRY MTNS. Zones. "The Dry Alps". The remaining three zones are more compact geographically, and have common geologic origins. All derive form an ancient range of coastal mountains which ran across the state from the northeast corner to near Eugene. The rocks visible on the surface today vary from largely granite in the Wallowas and Elkhorn Crest to a huge slab of old seafloor in the western Strawberries.
Although the local climate is presently fairly dry, all were deeply carved during the last Ice Age, and display classic alpine landforms, with deep U-shaped valleys and jagged ridges perched above the old glacial cirques.
There are 37, 13, and 9 peaks in the Wallowa Mtns., Elkhorn Crest, and Strawberry Mtns. groups, respectively. The Wallowas form an exceptionally dense concentration of peaks over 8000 feet. In Washington, only the area between Glacier Peak and northern Lake Chelan rivals it.
Anyone interested in a better understanding of the geology of Oregon will find a superb lay exposition in the volume "Roadside Geology of Oregon", by David Alt and Donald Hyndman.
So what are these 100 peaks like as climbing destinations? For the most part, I can only guess, because I havenít been there yet. Iíve only made it up five of them so far - a couple of the volcanoes when I was a kid, and three along the Elkhorn Crest last Labor Day (when I went camping with, yes, the in-laws!).
There are a couple of good guidebooks that cover some of the Cascade peaks ("Oregon High", by Jeff Thomas, and "Summit Guide to the Cascade Volcanoes", by Jeff Smoot). The peaks described there range from walkups to mixed alpine climbs to easy (low fifth-class) technical jaunts.
Another useful reference is "Exploring Oregonís Wild Areas", by William Sullivan. Although its emphasis is not on climbing, it has sections on every wilderness and mountain area in the state, and provides good information on approaches and trails for many of the summits which can be hiked.
Overall, the 100 highest peaks in Oregon appear more accessible and less rugged than those in Washington. This is not to say for a moment they are lacking in challenge. Especially in the Wallowas, the maps suggest a number of peaks are non-trivial scrambles, and some may even offer technical finishes.
I hope that publication of this list will stimulate feedback from readers who live in Oregon. Iíd love to hear some first-hand reports on mountains that, for me, have so far existed mostly as clumps of lines on paper.